The automated, screen-filled lifestyle of today is enabled largely by advances in electronic technologies. Startling progress in this industry began shortly after the solid-state transistor was invented in 1947. Since then, trends have been toward higher levels of complexity and decreasing size of components. Another prized objective has been the ability to pack more computing power into smaller spaces.
One building block in the world of electronic wizardry is the integrated circuit or IC. These little black chips with insect-like conducting legs are in practically every piece of electronic gear. Many of these circuits begin life on a circular silicon wafer roughly 12 inches in diameter and about .3 inches thick. The process of silicon wafer dicing dissects these wafers up into hundreds of the more familiar rectangular shapes.
After dicing, each chip is outfitted with metal conductors that connect the chip’s internal circuitry electrically to larger external circuits. Most chips are then mounted on printed circuit boards and soldered in place. Generally, these ICs fall into one of two categories according to their complexity and functionality. One category includes microprocessors built-in while the other does not.
Integrated Circuits With Processors
These ICs include the System on Chip (SoC), Microcontroller (MCU) and Microprocessor (MPU) designs. The presence of a processor in these chips allow for the execution of customized routines and multipurpose applications. Microprocessors carry out the processing task only while Socs and MCUs include other circuits for on-chip memory or graphics interfaces. Microprocessors typically operate at higher power levels and faster speeds.
Integrated Circuits Without Processors
ICs in this category include Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs). These circuits provide repeatable functions for logic, switching and look-up tables. ASICs are the simpler of the two because the circuits are hardwired and non-configurable while FPGAs offer the flexibility to modify logical arrangements or switching schemes as needed.
The development of powerful programming tools combined with more complex circuitry and the internet have enabled the latest generations of so-called “smart” devices. These wonders of technology often appear to possess almost intuitive abilities. Who knows? The continuation of these trends may one day result in a future where the robots and space travel of science fiction become our reality.